Black Leopard, Red Wolf and Moon Witch, Spider King (Riverhead
Books, February 2019 and February 2022). Covers by Pablo Gerardo Camacho
The first novel I bought by Marlon James was A Brief History of Seven Killings, a fictionalized version of the true story of the attempted hit on Bob Marley by seven gunmen in the late 1970s — which isn’t even fantasy or SF, but what can I tell you, I just picked it up in Barnes & Noble and it sounded cool. It won the 2015 Man Booker Prize and vaulted the Jamaican author to international prominence.
He turned heads in our own little corner of the literary world in 2019 with Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the opening novel in The Dark Star Trilogy. It won the Locus Award for Best Horror Novel, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Salman Rushdie said “Its imagination is all encompassing,” The New York Times called it “The literary equivalent of a Marvel Comics universe,” Entertainment Weekly proclaimed it “A revolutionary book,” and Time listed it as one of the 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time.
The follow-up arrived two months ago, and it’s not a sequel in the traditional sense. Moon Witch, Spider King retells Black Leopard, Red Wolf — the tale of a mercenary hired to find a missing child in Africa — from a very different perspective. It was an instant New York Times bestseller, and Buzzfeed labeled it “Even more brilliant than the first.”
Eowyn Ivey’s review in The New York Times was the first one I read, and it’s the one that’s stayed with me. Here’s a snippet.
Marlon James’s 2019 novel “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” was described as an African Game of Thrones… Clearly James was forging something else altogether, with elements of superhero stories, African folk tales and sword-and-sorcery… After 100 pages, I knew I was deep in the imagination of a voracious reader and brilliant inventor…
Moon Witch, Spider King… is the same story, or at least aspects of the same story, this time told by Sogolon — motherless bush girl, thief, royal companion, mother, assassin and avenger… a character scrappier than Arya Stark, cleverer than Jane Eyre, as foulmouthed as any gangster, with the world-weary humor of a noir private eye and the inscrutable morals of an antihero. In a kingdom cursed with forgetfulness, where self and truth are never as simple as they appear, Sogolon seems to have an iron compass at her center…. The main thread of Black Leopard, Red Wolf runs through this plot as well — the search for a mysterious boy — but Sogolon knows the boy’s origins and the trouble he could bring. Her greater desire is to hunt down her nemesis, the Aesi….
While Sogolon is the strong, beating heart of the story, she is by no means its only fascinating character. James conjures up vampires, swamp trolls, dragons, a lightning-wielding madwoman, a bedeviling water sprite that takes the form of a black blob, an island that is really the back of a giant fish, the terrifying Sangomin children and “ancestor in the form of smoke, ghost in the form of dust.”
The author calls his trilogy nonlinear, saying that reader can start with any book, which is an intriguing twist on the familiar fantasy formula. Moon Witch, Spider King might be the book that commands my attention this weekend.
Moon Witch, Spider King was published by Riverhead Books on February 15, 2022. It is 656 pages, priced at $30 in hardcover, $14.99 digital, and $31.85 in audio formats. The cover is by Pablo Gerardo Camacho. Our coverage of the first book is here.
See all our coverage of the best new fantasy series here.